This week, Lady Whistledown and Her Majesty Queen Charlotte invited frenzied fans and friends of the Bridgerton court to join them for the momentous virtual red carpet soiree to view the new Season 2 trailer. “You wouldn’t want to disobey the Queen’s orders,” warns Queen Charlotte.
Like many Bridger-buffs who have read all the books, I was front and center for the premiere. But all the sneak peaks of the plot, scenes, and Season 2 predictions have fallen short for me—and apparently many other BIPOC audience members on the internet. This season features the oldest Bridgerton, Anthony (Jonathan Bailey), on a quest to find a “suitable wife,” and new-to-town sisters Edwina Sharma (Charithra Chandran) and Kate Sharma (Simone Ashley) seem intriguing. The broken-hearted Anthony, a former rake, is desperate to find a match by any means necessary after his on-again, off-again lover Siena finally distanced herself from his antics last season. Anthony is now positioned as a tortured soul, stuck in a “complicated” love-triangle with two sisters.
All I can do is roll my eyes. I’ll admit we love to see two women of color as the leads, but I fear the Shondaland team is setting us up for a repeat of Season 1's problematic nods and shoulder shrugs to race. Don’t get me wrong: Were Anthony’s skirt-hiking, bodice-ripping love scenes with Siena super hot? Yes. One of the best things about Regency Era shows like Bridgerton is watching corsets and cummerbunds fly in titillating romps of ecstasy, wondering if he’ll be able to unlace her bustier before he bust-i-ays all over her blouse. No one likes to see a duke on his knees in a staircase cunnilingus scene more than I do, but, oh, Bridgerton, Lord Bridgerton... this isn’t it.
Numerous film critics have called out Bridgerton for its sloppy mishandling of race and social class since it was first released. Past critiques have explored points of colorism, “color blind” vs. color-conscious casting, and the show’s issue with featurism. Show-runner Chris Van Dusen responded to the color blind casting criticism by saying: “I don’t call the casting color blind, because I feel like the word color blind implies that color and race was never considered — and I don’t think that’s true for Bridgerton.” But a show in which actors of color are deliberately cast into white roles, like Hamilton, must go beyond simple consideration of color and race and take care to make sure the characters of color aren’t being tokenized. Simply put, make it make sense, Van Dusen.
Instead of an ambiguous and passé approach to acknowledging race, here’s what the BIPOC audience wants to see and deserves from future seasons:
1) No casting of new people of color unless they plan to follow through with expansive recognition and real conversations around race.
2) An end to tokenism. Main characters of color, like Simone Ashley alone, cannot carry the weight of correcting issues of colonialism, caste system, racism, and more.
3) No more race-bating. Don’t dangle the POC characters in front of our faces like shiny gems to a woman expecting a wedding ring, when all we got were cubic zirconium studs!
YouTube pop culture critic Khadijah Mbowe has argued that Bridgerton is guilty of race-baiting, because ultimately, the BIPOC audience is lured into a show then set up for failure when the people of color are denied a full range of lived experiences, fleshed out backstories, complex emotional arcs, or dialogue that addresses race in any meaningful and intentional way. And now we’re seeing this repeated again in the introduction of the two new women of color.
As a loyal fan who’s followed Simone Ashley since Sex Education, I was incredibly excited to see her break racial boundaries by playing Kate Sharma—and not only because the original character in the Julia Quinn books was named Kate Sheffield and was white. The hope was mostly that Ashley’s effortless scene-stealing ferocity and quick wit would help counterbalance some of Anthony’s toxic masculinity; however, the downside here is that with the Duke (played by Rege-Jean Page) and Marina (played by Ruby Barker) gone, the burden rests on Simone Ashley’s shoulders to perform a large amount of labor. The only POC characters left are Lady Danbury and the Queen Charlotte, who we know very little about. As Jack Edwards points out in his video, tokenism is to blame here.
Upon seeing the first trailer, I thought Kate Sharma was going to be the focal point. That her life, her feelings and emotions would take center stage and the story would be told from her viewpoint. Because, why not? That’s what we all wanted. Not that Daphne wasn’t nice, but we needed some relief from the doe-eyed WASP. But based on what I’ve seen about Season 2, it looks like this isn’t going to happen.
Thankfully, we do get significant backstory on the Sharma family that is at least tied to some level of historical accuracy. Like many Indian families during the 1800s, the Sharmas escaped to England to have more prospects and freedom, but they are experiencing financial hardship and struggling to afford to debut their daughters into society. But even that is a poor attempt at offering a diverse lens: “They very much feel like outsiders,” said Charithra Chandran, who plays Kate’s younger step-sister Edwina, about the Sharma family during a virtual cast panel.
Kate’s family is the first Indian family on the show (the only family of color), and to see them also financially struggling traps them into a stereotypical box that they cannot escape without marrying up. It only slightly softens the blow that Kate’s character is gritty and immediately confronts Anthony’s inherent sexism and toxicity.
“I take issue with any man that views women merely as chattel and breeding stock,” Kate says in the clips. She wants to prevent Edwina from falling into an entanglement with Anthony, because he has low moral character, which makes him an unsuitable match.
While Bridgerton takes precaution to call out gender roles and misogyny, the trailer does not leave us to believe it will address the racial implications to this statement or its connection to actual British colonialism. Where Simon’s exit could have potentially opened the door for wider, deeper conversations around the complexities of race, Bridgerton’s new season seems like it will only skim the surface. The white families remain the center of the story, while the characters of color seems to orbit their white counterparts in a way that has little staying power. The Sharmas are voyeurs dropped into an already pre-established world.
While I kept an open mind with Season 1, I’m starting to think Bridgerton’s intended target audience is not me, as a woman of color. The Sharmas feel like a shallow grab at broader audiences, and the escapism it tries to provide appears entirely intended for white consumption. As fellow fan Xen x Cole McCade pointed out in 2020, “there is an expectation that Regency stories, regardless of medium, are by and large For White Women... Specifically for white cishet women, but there is a baked-in expectation of who the primary audience is.”
Whether Season 2 will surprise us all remains to be seen, but if not, it’s pistols at dawn for you, Bridgerton.